Settling the Scores

I suffer from acute birding FOMO. Passing up on opportunities for exploration and discovery, especially alongside friends, bums me out. Last year, Taylor and Brent worked to organize a grassroots bird survey in the style of Audubon’s official Christmas Bird Counts. The circle they established included some woefully underbirded but promising habitat along the North Shore that is not covered in any existing CBCs. I was excited to help out in the inaugural Northport Winter Bird Count, but unforeseen circumstances got in the way. A winter storm forced the rescheduling of the annual Brooklyn Paulagic trip, which moved me off the wait list and into a seat on the boat. As much as I wanted to assist my friends, I was hard-pressed to say no to the promise of Dovekies, puffins, and other elusive seabirds. I certainly didn’t regret my choice to join the offshore expedition, but I felt bad about bailing on the count team. When count preparation rolled around once again for 2018, I was eager to set things right.

I was assigned territory in the Huntington sector of the count circle, which made me responsible for all points of interest from the harbor south to the survey area border. I was also tasked to check up on Centerport’s Tung Ting Pond at dawn, a critical spot for rare waterfowl. After some fruitless nocturnal birding in the wee hours of the morning, I headed to the pond to wait for sunrise. I was soon joined by Tim Dunn, who was the only counter working on the entirety of the Centerport sector. I let him know that I was happy to relieve him of this tallying effort, and he gladly agreed. After a quick scan and a pleasant catch-up, Tim set out to cover the rest of his expansive turf. Rafts of Canvasbacks, increasingly rare on the Island away from traditional sites like this one, were obvious at first light thanks to their namesake white upperparts. As the sun increasingly illuminated the hundreds of roosting Canada Geese, I was able to pick out a Greater White-fronted Goose and a Cackling Goose among the throng. Both birds had been seen in the week leading up to the big day, but it was crucial to catch them at their known nightly resting place before they took off to feed in some nearby field.

I added an adult Bald Eagle and a nice spread of ducks to my personal count list before returning to the Huntington area. The rest of the day was spent combing the town’s surroundings in search of all things avian. Armed with a list of potential hotspots provided by Brent, I cruised around in search of additional intriguing locations. Most of the sites I visited were small roadside parks and public waterfronts, but I also took some more extended walks through larger preserves like West Hills County Park and Froelich Farm. I accumulated a respectable tally of species, including goldeneye, flicker, creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet as new year birds. There were a few nice surprises along the way, such as a female Red-breasted Merganser on a tiny freshwater pond and a cooperative flock of Fish Crows that came to visit me before sundown.

After dusk, I met the other 12 participants at Changing Times Ale House for our compilation dinner. The available fare was solid pub grub, and we had a grand time swapping stories and counting up our totals. Out of the final count of 87 species, I was surprised to learn that I had contributed a few personal “saves” that would’ve otherwise been missed: American Coot, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was thankful for the opportunity to help out with this incipient count, and I look forward to seeing where the effort goes in the future.

Sunday morning brought conditions that were far more blustery and chilly than Saturday’s weather. I bundled myself up and struck out for Tiffany Creek Preserve in Oyster Bay, hoping to finally track down Nassau’s first ever Townsend’s Solitaire. I’d missed the long-staying rarity on my January 1st attempt, and after catching up with the King Eider and Ross’s Goose it was my most egregious remaining New Year’s dip. I arrived to find other birders departing the scene, stating that the bird had showed briefly at dawn before disappearing again. I set up shop atop the hill, watching and waiting. Cloud cover eventually gave way to clear skies, crowds of hopeful observers began to arrive, and despite the cold midmorning saw an uptick in avian activity. A pair of ravens passed overhead, croaking and diving in a coordinated courtship flight. When a flock of bluebirds flew in from the southeast, I went on high alert: the solitaire had apparently been seen in loose association with its fellow thrushes multiple times. Sure enough, someone spied our target flying in from the same direction a few minutes later. The svelte songbird picked berries from its favored juniper tree, offering distant but extended views before departing.

With Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to spend my extra weekend hours at the East End of Long Island. I reached Hook Pond in East Hampton just as the sun was coming up, quickly picking out a pair of Tundra Swans. This is the most consistent location on the whole Island for these large, white birds, and they did not disappoint. A short time later, I was setting up my scope in a sheltered alcove along the backside of the Lighthouse Grill at Montauk Point. Strong northeast winds had been blowing throughout the night, and I hoped that they would provide a seabird show in the early morning. Nearly 100 Razorbills, good numbers of scoters and eiders, some flyby Red-necked Grebes, and a young Iceland Gull made my predawn drive worthwhile. Big Reed Pond was fairly quiet, save for a lone catbird, and I found another Iceland Gull at the Lake Montauk Inlet, also a first-cycle individual.

My next stop was Montauk Downs Golf Course, where I teamed up with Mike McBrien, who had also been seawatching at the Point. We set out across the fairways in search of grazing geese, eventually locating a trio of Snow Geese and a Pink-footed Goose at the far northern boundary of the course. With my targets secured, I hunted down a celebratory lunch at Townline BBQ in Wainscott. From there, I turned the car southwest towards Dune Road, where I tried my luck for rails and bitterns. Even though I couldn’t find any skulky wetland species, I was happy to spot a Snowy Owl perched on the ice along the marsh’s edge.

The day’s light was fading fast, but I had time to stop by the Mill Pond in Sayville and tick Eurasian Wigeon off my year list. These handsome ducks are annual on Long Island, but they’re usually just far enough away that I end up waiting until late in the year to chase them. This individual was on my route home and quite confiding, showing exceptionally well among the other assembled waterfowl. I crossed the bridge over the frozen Great South Bay and drove along the barrier islands to watch sunset from the Jones Beach parking lot. The wind was too strong for any owls to come out and hunt, but the atmosphere of the scene made for a nice end to my adventure.

Looking over my records from the past few years of serious listing, it seems like January 14th is always the day that I hit 100 species for my annual list. 2018’s first century bird was none other than the Townsend’s Solitaire: not bad! Maybe next year I’ll be able to beat my consistent pace and crack triple digits even earlier. It’s a silly goal, but it’s something to look forward to, at least!

Year List Update, January 15 – 110 Species (+ Canvasback, Hooded Merganser, Green-winged Teal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Pintail, Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Common Goldeneye, Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Eastern Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Common Merganser, Tundra Swan, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Razorbill, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Catbird, Pink-footed Goose, Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon)

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New Year, New List

Pop that champagne, a new year is upon us! With it comes a whole new set of seasonal adventures and opportunities for discovery. The listing slate has been wiped clean, and I’ve got my share of tentative birding resolutions for 2018. With only 59 species to go and an international trip coming up, this may be the year when my world life list reaches 700. I’d love to achieve an annual total of 400 species for the third year in a row, and I’m also aiming to stay highly ranked on eBird in my home state (Top 25) and county (Top 10). The deadlines for these aspirations, however, are 12 whole months away. Right now I’m just excited to get started on my 2018 list. On January 1st, every bird is a new bird!

In contrast with 2016 and 2017, I didn’t have an excuse for intense new year birding in the form of the Southern Nassau Christmas Bird Count. The lack of a formal obligation was never going to stop me, though, and it left me free to make my own plans. After a subdued, relaxing 31st, I stopped to get gas on the way home from Miriam’s. A raucous chorus of honks reached my ears when I opened the car door, and thus Canada Goose earned the number 1 spot on my new year list. Shortly after dawn, I headed down to Jones Beach to try my luck. The biggest surprise of the morning was an American Bittern flying west over the dunes: seeing this furtive creature before encountering even starlings or pigeons was a real treat! I was also pleased to add Snowy Owl to the ranks of the first 10 species for 2018. A number of other expected beach birds rounded out the tally before I headed inland. The day proved to be a bit of a mixed bag moving forward, as I struggled to relocate several rarities that I chased. There was no sign of either King Eider at the jetty, and I repeatedly failed to connect with a Ross’s Goose that kept coming and going from Baisley Pond Park in Queens.

On the other hand, I did have enjoy a nice spot of luck with a lingering Western Tanager at Crocheron Park. The individual at Alley Pond in November had only offered fleeting glimpses and some quiet vocalizations, providing me with a new but somewhat unremarkable checkmark on my New York list. When I drove up to the pond where this bird had been sighted, I found it foraging conspicuously along the street. The tanager picked morsels from the leaf litter and fluttered in place to glean suet that someone had smeared on a nearby wall, lending a welcome splash of color to the winter landscape.

I racked up several familiar forest’s edge birds at Crocheron, and there were some nice waterfowl and a Rusty Blackbird present at Baisley Pond. After hearing that the Townsend’s Solitaire in Oyster Bay had been seen in the morning hours, I decided to survey the scene. The western vagrant was sadly a no-show during my afternoon stakeout, but a young Bald Eagle soaring overhead was a pleasant consolation prize. The Ross’s Goose failed to reappear before sunset on a final visit to its roost site, reminding me that I had missed the species all year in 2017 despite my best efforts. Miriam joined me on an expedition to track it down after positive reports the following weekend informed us that the goose was still loose. Once again, it was gone from the mostly frozen water feature when we arrived, but checking the nearby ball fields on a hunch finally revealed our prize.

Sunday morning was absolutely frigid, but by the time I realized just how cold it was I was already halfway down to the inlet at Jones Beach. I settled the score with the eider flock, picking up the first year King as it bobbed among its commoner relatives. My phone froze and shut down as I attempted to digiscope the duck, which I took as a cue to return to the safety of the car. There were plenty of good birds working the coast, but you have to know when to call it quits!

When I reached Robert Moses, I was surprised to see a pair of Common Ravens floating eastward along the road. The shadowy scavengers touched down in the parking lot at Field 5, strutting over to a pile of food scraps left for the gulls. Ravens are big, but Great Black-backs are bigger. Messing with the world’s largest gull is not an activity to be taken lightly. Fortunately, ravens are resourceful and well-seasoned tricksters, not above using dirty tactics to get what they want. I don’t know that I’d ever seen interaction between these two species before, but I was certainly entertained by the antics of the clever corvids as they jockeyed for position at the buffet.

I sifted through the local Horned Larks to find a reported Lapland Longspur, and I finally caught up with a flock of Snow Buntings swirling over the beach. From the barrier islands I drove to Massapequa Preserve, hoping to add some woodland species to the year list. I was not disappointed by the resident Screech-Owl, and the trailside stream was shockingly still flowing. Even the Great South Bay was almost completely iced over during the extended cold spell, making open water a hot commodity on Long Island. A variety of birds were taking advantage of this precious resource, showing well at close range.

A flicker of movement along the creekbank caught my attention, drawing my eye to the well-camouflaged form of a Wilson’s Snipe. This individual was especially confiding, diligently probing for food in the shallow water. Since so many of my snipe encounters are rear looks at flushing birds that rapidly fly away, I relished these close range, extended views.

When I left Massapequa, I followed up on listserv emails about a Greater White-fronted Goose near Alley Pond even though I suspected that I was tempting fate so late in the morning. To my regret, if not my surprise, the pond was all but devoid of geese upon my arrival. I did manage to locate an Iceland Gull at the fringe of a large flock of larids, and I added a few other year birds to my total. Checking my map, I noticed that there was a large golf course at Douglaston Park, due east of the pond where the waterfowl had spent the night. It seemed like a good bet for a daytime feeding site where I might find the absentee geese. My prediction proved to be accurate. There were many hundreds of Canadas grazing on the rolling hills, dodging sledding children and milling about noisily. I searched through the multitudes very thoroughly, but the White-front was not visible. Plenty of geese were observed coming and going throughout my visit, so it may well have been elsewhere nearby with a different subflock. I amused myself with a photoshoot focused on some nearby Fox Sparrows. The rusty passerines were already not a year bird, but they were delightful all the same.

My first full week of 2018 was a solid start to the year. Despite bitter cold temperatures and the chaotic back-to-school adjustment period, I still had a damn good time. An unexpected snow day here, some fun moments with my loved ones there, and plenty of quality birding mixed in between all added up to a very agreeable couple of days. I’m eager to see what the rest of the year will bring!

Year List Update, January 7 – 87 Species (+ Canada Goose, Herring Gull, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove, Great Black-backed Gull, American Bittern, Savannah Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Song Sparrow, Snowy Owl, Dunlin, Sanderling, Brant, Common Eider, Greater Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Ring-billed Gull, Red-breasted Merganser, Northern Gannet, Common Loon, Purple Sandpiper, Bonaparte’s Gull, Red-throated Loon, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Harrier, Swamp Sparrow, American Crow, Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, American Black Duck, European Starling, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Redhead, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Pied-billed Grebe, American Wigeon, Rusty Blackbird, Ruddy Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Mute Swan, Western Tanager, Northern Cardinal, White-throated Sparrow, Carolina Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Finch, Fox Sparrow, Bufflehead, Gadwall, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, Fish Crow, American Robin, Peregrine Falcon, Ross’s Goose, Cooper’s Hawk, Great Cormorant, Black Scoter, King Eider, Horned Grebe, Black-bellied Plover, Merlin, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Common Raven, Snow Bunting, Black-capped Chickadee, Eastern Screech-Owl, Wilson’s Snipe, Hermit Thrush, Hairy Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher, Winter Wren, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Lesser Scaup, Iceland Gull, Common Grackle, Monk Parakeet)

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2017 Top 10 Lifers

The annual tradition continues! Most birders I know like to reflect back on the “best birds” of the past 365 days as the new year draws near. Almost all nature blogs post similar Top 10s before the changing of the calendar, and I love a good countdown. In 2016, at the end of my first full year of blog posts, I elected to focus on new birds only to eliminate the complications of choosing highlights from all birds observed. I continued with this decision for 2017, narrowing the pool of possible species from 404 to 34. Let it be known that it’s no easy task choosing the best of the best after such an incredible year of new experiences! After careful consideration, I present the Top 10 lifers of 2017:

10: Common Greenshank, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, NJ 10/28


Birding is all about the chase! I took part in more twitching and rarity hunting in 2017 than I did in any previous year. Without a prompt from Brendan, I may have never gone after the rare Old World shorebird even though it was only a state away. We had a grand time on our jaunt to Jersey, and we survived the circus of chaos that unfolded on the wildlife driving loop. We even got to see the bird, eventually, at a great distance! I may not have gotten any serviceable photos, but I did make a lot of memories pursuing this hue-shifted Yellowlegs.

9: Dovekie, Offshore Long Island, NY 1/14


Growing up on the coast, I’ve always had a sense of respect and wonder towards the ocean. Seabirds, many of which spend the majority of their lives adrift on the wind and waves, fascinate me. My time working for Project Puffin allowed me to get very well acquainted with Atlantic alcids, but the Dovekie was a conspicuous hole in my life list for years. I finally caught up with these tiny, Porg-like critters thanks to the Paulagics team, and they were absolutely worth the wait.

8: Black-backed Oriole, Sinking Spring, PA 2/11


The tale of this improbably lost creature was one of the most unexpected events in the birding community this year. Countless people traveled to take part in the celebration of this singular record, even without knowing for sure that it represented a true, wild vagrant. Subsequent sightings of the same individual in Connecticut and Massachusetts add delightful wrinkles to the already compelling story. I have thought of this bird often over the past few months, wondering where the journey began and where it has led since. Only time will tell if the records committees officially accept the oriole as countable, but it doesn’t really matter as much as the encounter did.

7: Western Spindalis, Bill Baggs Cape Florida SP, FL 4/16


This April, Florida was the place to be. Prolonged easterly winds ferried a bonanza of Caribbean specialties into the Sunshine State, providing birders with the opportunity to see multiple continent-level rarities at the same site or even in the same tree. By happenstance, my spring break was situated right at the beginning of this spectacle. I arrived too late or too early for some of the most shocking finds, but I still got in on the fun when Brian and I tracked down a stunning male spindalis on one of the last days of my trip.

6: Little Gull, Bombay Hook NWR, DE 7/2


A nemesis rose and fell over the course of 2017. Little Gulls have been giving me the runaround for the better part of a decade, and I experienced several near misses in close succession during the first half of the year. At long last, I managed to track one down and enjoy satisfying, up-close views. Another species will inevitably step up to fill the void someday, but for now I’m happy that I managed to vanquish this tricky opponent.

5: Common Shelduck, Odiorne Point SP, NH 8/22


The shelduck has an strange history in North America, setting off lively discussions about potential provenance whenever it appears on our shores. Just last month, the species was added to the ABA checklist as a naturally occurring species, and the young bird that spent several weeks near the New Hampshire/Maine border was a good candidate for a wild migrant. Miriam and I certainly had a blast on our impromptu roadtrip to look for the odd duck, which surprised me with its strange appearance and behavior during our field observations.

4: Northern Hawk Owl, Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, QC 1/29


As a lifelong lover of owls, the unusual, unpredictable Hawk Owl ranked highly on the list of my most wanted birds. Friends told me that this northern predator was worth traveling for, and I chased further afield than ever before to track down an individual spending the winter just outside Quebec City. It lived up to my expectations and then some. I also feel justified in my long-distance odyssey thanks to the recent designation of this bird as a “sensitive species” on eBird. It may be more challenging to find these elusive hunters in the future, but I’m happy that they’ll be protected in some capacity moving forward.

3: White-faced Storm-Petrel, Offshore Long Island, NY 8/27


The January Paulagic trip was a fantastic offshore outing, but the August expedition to the continental shelf blew it out of the water. We traveled more than 140 miles from the coast, and we found a surfeit of seabirds that associate with warm, deep regions of the ocean. The most desirable of these was the White-faced Storm-Petrel, one of the grand prizes of pelagic birding in North America. I’ve never seen anything quite like this bouncing world traveler, and even our brief encounter was enough to leave me floored. Maybe we’ll cross paths again one day, if I’m lucky.

2: Corn Crake, Ocean Parkway, NY 11/7


This is undoubtedly one of the top “Top Birds” of the year for everyone who was fortunate enough to see it. Indeed, I’ve spoken to many birders who rank this as perhaps the greatest, most remarkable sighting of their life. This species has only been recorded in North America a handful of times since the turn of the 20th century, and there had never before been a chaseable record. Only one major North American field guide contains any information about the species, that’s how far “off the radar” it is. Beyond that, the Corn Crake is striking in appearance and proved endlessly entertaining to watch. I only regret that the choice in location that made this individual so readily accessible and visible also put it in position for its early demise. Hopefully the isotope analysis which has been arranged can tell us a bit more about this wayward wanderer. Its specimen shall remain hereafter at the American Museum of Natural History, and its memory shall remain in our hearts.

1: Ross’s Gull, Tupper Lake, NY 1/28


I wasn’t certain which of my Top 2 birds was going to take the highest honors before typing this post. It is almost impossible to rank either above the other. Both birds are stunningly rare and unique even among their closest relatives, and they both have pretty snazzy plumage well. The “drop everything” mayhem of twitching the Corn Crake close to home contrasts with the long-range, carefully planned adventure in search of the Ross’s Gull, and both events represent some of my favorite aspects of birding. In the end, however, there was a little something extra magical about Rhodostethia rosea.  The crake may have been a bigger surprise that represents a more enviable feather in my cap, but I have spent much of my life wondering if, how, and when I would ever see a Ross’s Gull. It is the quintessential rare bird, a nearly legendary creature that seasoned explorers and aspirant newbies alike speak of with a twinkle in their eyes. The saga surrounding this gift from the Arctic was something I’ll never forget. I was shocked when I first heard about the gull’s presence. I eagerly followed the correspondence with the homeowner who graciously opened his house for the stakeout. The drive up was full of excitement, and I joined a gathering of fellow birders on site only to find the bird missing. I departed disappointed, receiving a summons with positive news when I was over an hour away. When I finally arrived to see those gorgeous, graceful wings hanging on the wind above a frozen Adirondack lake, I was absolutely transfixed. The Ross’s Gull is globally sought-after, aesthetically entrancing, and ecologically fascinating. Sharing this particular episode with good friends and claiming victory after a near miss only enhanced the overall experience. Birding just doesn’t get much better than that.

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Count Me In!

The annual Christmas Bird Counts rank highly among my most anticipated events of the Yuletide season. There are two specific counts that I try to do every year: Southern Nassau and Montauk. These survey circles represent my local patches and one of my favorite birding spots on the Island, respectively. As the count period approached, I discussed strategy with my teammates and eagerly looked forward to the scheduled dates.

The Friday before my journey to Montauk brought an unexpectedly intense snowstorm, and my loved ones expressed some concern about my late night drive to the End. After assessing the conditions on the way to and from the family’s traditional Star Wars viewing of The Last Jedi, I agreed that it was not a great night to be on the road. I decided to head to sleep early and drive out before dawn on Saturday instead. I reached Vicki’s house just after 6 AM and grabbed some breakfast for Taylor, who’d been out owling with minimal success in the windy darkness. We hitched a ride out to Shagwong Point, one of the critical checkpoints on our territory, with Vicki’s son Chris. A Snowy Owl and some Snow Buntings took off at close range as the pickup made its way out the beach, both infrequent encounters for our turf. We set up our scopes behind the shelter of a dune and started taking down numbers of the birds observed on our sunrise seawatch at Shagwong.

Once we finished tallying marine species, we began working our way inland and checking various hidden sites along the way. A second Snowy Owl along the beach was a welcome find, and we racked up a few more waterbirds around the jetties at Lake Montauk Inlet. As we explored the area near the Montauk Airport, Taylor heard the call of a Common Raven and I spotted a Tree Swallow foraging along the edge of the runway. Both of these species were great additions to the day’s total, and I learned some details to put them in context at the compilation dinner that night. Our raven was only the second ever for the Montauk CBC after the first observation on Gardiner’s Island last winter. Tree Swallows have only been recorded during this count a handful of times, and there have been no records in the past 12 years. Our team, on the Point North territory, managed to land a handful of species that were not recorded elsewhere, known as “saves.” Apart from the swallow and the raven, we also found Virginia Rails, a Marsh Wren, and a Common Yellowthroat. The final combined total was a respectable 122 species…not bad on such a blustery day with most freshwater sites frozen over!

Additional counts came and went over the course of the next week, but I was too busy with other obligations to partake. The annual Healy Family Christmas Brunch was held on Sunday the 17th, and it was well-worth the intense preparation necessary to host and feed our legions of guests. I had a full week of work to survive before I could enjoy my holiday vacation, and the remaining days of school seemed to drag on for an especially long time. I did manage to slip into the city on Thursday night to see my uncle play saxophone for a Christmas show with Darlene Love: a small taste of festivities before the official end of responsibility. I even got to spend some quality time with a cooperative Woodcock in Bryant Park before meeting up with the family.

When the weekend finally arrived, I was happy to use some of my free time for birding. My first priority was a Mountain Bluebird at Robert Moses that had been discovered by Pat Lindsay during the Captree CBC while I was partying it up at the brunch. Even though I’ve seen this species on several occasions out west, including earlier this year, I had never before observed one in my home state. Adding the bluebird to my New York list proved quite easy, as the little charmer was actively showing off while it foraged in the junipers at Democrat Point. I was treated to quality, up-close and personal views of the wayward bird, and I was thankful that it had stuck around for a full week so I could get acquainted with it.

Christmas itself was a delight, and I enjoyed a well-balanced mix of friends, family, relaxation, and outdoor adventures over the course of the week that followed. Miriam led me on an expedition to the frigid northern limits of New York state in search of a white Gyrfalcon near Plattsburgh, though we sadly came up short in our efforts. It was still a fun mini-roadtrip, and there was plenty of consolation raptor activity in the form of her first Rough-legged Hawks, a surprise adult Red-shoulder, and multiple Bald Eagles circling together and hunting out on Lake Champlain. It’s hard to complain about an impromptu day of birding, even when the hoped-for quarry is a no-show!

The Southern Nassau CBC often takes place in the first days of the new year, but this time the count date fell on December 30th. I was teamed up with Brendan, as of course is tradition, but this year we were joined by our good friend Ben Van Doren on our journey to the Jones Beach jetty. The appointed meeting time at the West End parking lot was 6:30 AM. I spotted some sort of owl taking off from one of the holiday light fixtures in the predawn gloom, and when the sun began to rise it revealed a glass-like sea and unlimited visibility. Count day was off to an auspicious start. We trekked down to the beach and started off with a seawatch. Good numbers of ducks were moving through the area at first light, and we were able to quickly confirm the continuing presence of two King Eiders in the local flock of Commons. These birds, a young male and an adult nearing full breeding splendor, had been seen frequently in recent days, and they would’ve been a glaring miss if we had failed to locate them. Fortunately, this was not an issue. The handsome ducks showed well throughout the morning.

Snow began to fall with some strength, much earlier than weather forecasts had predicted. We pressed onward to the jetty and found the boulders coated with a slick layer of ice. It proved difficult to successfully navigate the slippery rocks, but we still managed to pick out a flock of 30 Purple Sandpipers. This is one of the crucial “gets” in our territory, as there are many coastal birds that can easily go missed for the count if we fail to deliver. We found a Snowy Owl, over a dozen “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows, a large Snow Bunting flock, and a number of seagoing species as we headed up the inlet and into the dunes. BVD also spotted an Iceland Gull flying west along the shore. A Short-eared Owl that flushed from a brushy patch ahead of us was one of the best surprises of the day, and the raptor fortunately stayed low and settled a short distance away after our unintended disturbance. Back at the lot, carefully scanning a congregation of Horned Larks revealed 5 Lapland Longspurs picking seeds from the snow-covered stalks of grass.

Even in freezing cold weather, even when the wildlife refuses to cooperate, Christmas Bird Counts are something special. The spirit of camaraderie and the inevitable silly stories that come from the shared experience make these efforts a true birder holiday. As temperatures plummeted and sky grew snowier, the three of us found fewer and fewer birds later in the day. All the same, we had smiles on our faces throughout and took pride the morning’s successes. BVD had to head back to the city in the early afternoon, and when we finished searching our turf I briefly parted ways with Brendan to unsuccessfully follow up on a report of a White-winged Dove just blocks from my house. By sunset, I was back at Otto’s Sea Grill to join my friends for the highly anticipated compilation dinner.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this year due to the weather forecast and the extended cold snap leading up to the CBC date. However, we managed to pull together a surprisingly impressive total despite the early snow and the scarcity of fresh, open water. 132 species were recorded by participants across the territories, including a number of great “write-in” species that are rarely or infrequently encountered on the count. The data are still being sorted out and prepared for the master database, but Southern Nassau apparently reported the largest number of species out of all New York counts this year! As I look back on a fantastic year full of great memories, it’s clear to me that this CBC season will be among the most memorable events of my 2017 experience. Considering the adventures I’ve had since January, that’s really saying something!

Year List Update, December 31 – 404 Species (+ King Eider)

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Rarity Round-Up

I don’t need an excuse to go birding, but I’ll gladly take one when it comes my way! It’s nice when I get the chance to steer my aimless wandering toward a meaningful purpose. To that end, I was intrigued by a Friday evening listserv post from Shai containing a last-minute proposal to conduct a “rarity round-up” over the weekend. The goal, as outlined in the email, was to comb the Island as thoroughly as possible in search of any seasonally or regionally unusual birds. I thought of the effort as a sort of practice run for Christmas Bird Count season, with the key difference being a focus on sniffing out surprises rather than tallying the total numbers of each species observed. At any rate, it sounded like a lot of fun. I confirmed my participation with Shai and outlined a rough plan to scour southern Nassau for two days. Saturday morning found me at Jones Beach just as the rising sun set the distant city skyline ablaze.

Rather than join the usuals at the jetty or the median, I decided to get off the beaten path and explore some tucked-away scrubby habitat where I’d enjoyed some warblers a few months prior. It was a pleasant stroll, but unfortunately devoid of anything out of the ordinary. After about an hour I continued on to check some less popular patches in my area. I scanned the marshes north of the Ocean Parkway, discovering my first Snowy Owl of the weekend perched on a hillock across the channel. The bird had found a roost safe from overzealous human admirers, but it still had to contend with unwanted attention from a harrier that halfheartedly buzzed it before continuing on. After opening its beak threateningly at the low-flying nuisance, the owl settled down to rest once again. I drove over to the JFK Sanctuary at Tobay Beach to try my luck. My pishing drew in a number of songbirds, including American Tree Sparrows and Carolina Wrens. I also noted a White-crowned Sparrow foraging with the White-throats, Songs, and Swamps.

JFK turned out to be my most productive stop for rarities, even though I didn’t encounter anything on the level of Hammond’s Flycatcher. A Blue-winged Teal on the hidden ponds with other ducks was a nice find, but a Northern Parula roving with some Yellow-rumps was an even better prize. This individual represented the latest recorded report for Nassau County, and along with a handful of others between Brooklyn and Montauk is among the latest historical sightings in the state. The unseasonably warm weather we’ve experienced has apparently kept a number of warblers lingering long beyond their usual departure. A Wilson’s and Magnolia Warblers in Manhattan and a Prothonotary in Suffolk are also notable for being basically unprecedented north of the Gulf Coast at this time of year. Remarkably, I found a second parula at Cow Meadow Park in the evening hours. These two were my rarest contributions of the weekend, even though the species is abundant at other times of the year.

Other Saturday sites included Point Lookout, Lido West Town Park, the Passive Nature Area, and Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. I also made a quick trip to Robert Moses at dusk to search for some gulls that others had mentioned, but the activity had apparently dispersed by the end of the day. As I was wrapping up my final checklist at dusk, a ghostly form flew into view through the darkening sky. The Snowy passed low over the roof of my car as it headed out to hunt, floating into the night on silent, white wings. Even with the minor unexpected rarities taken into account, my brushes with the ongoing Snowy Owl invasion ranked well among the day’s highlights. In addition to the marsh squatter and the twilit flyby, I managed to scope one of the Jones Beach birds from across the inlet at Point Lookout. I will never tire of watching these majestic predators during their winter visits to our shores.

I met up with Shai, Pat, Pete, and Brent at Sea Levels in Bayshore for dinner. It was a treat to catch up over delicious food and drinks, swapping notes about the day’s searches and trading tales of adventures past. None of us wanted to stay out too late, however, because the rarity round-up was set to continue in the morning. I started Sunday at Robert Moses, hoping to catch the foraging flocks from the previous day. There were a great many birds present in the area, but most were feeding far out on the horizon in front of the sunrise. My scope wasn’t able to resolve anything interesting, so I turned back towards the west. An American Bittern that flew up from the Gilgo Beach marsh was a welcome discovery, and I heard word of more cooperative seabirds at Jones. I made tracks to the West End jetty, where I was greeted by Tripper, John G, and a congregation of hungry Bonaparte’s Gulls.

These fluttery, squeaky mini-gulls, affectionately known as Bonies, are an engaging and entertaining species to observe. I spent a couple of hours with the flock, watching as they swirled and circled around the rip currents and plunged into the sea to nab tiny fish. Besides being thoroughly delightful themselves, large groups of Bonies often attract the attention of similar-looking but less-common species. I was definitely hoping to find a rarer relative among their numbers, like a Black-headed or Little Gull, but the best I could manage was a late Common Tern. Considering how much fun I had during my stakeout, I’d consider this effort time well-wasted.

Despite the lack of sneaky vagrants among the Bonaparte’s ranks, there were plenty of other great winter birds hanging around the area. A Parasitic Jaeger flew east down the shoreline shortly after I arrived, a difficult bird to get from shore and a slightly out-of-season one at that. I was also pleased by the appearance of an adult Iceland Gull winging its way across the inlet. Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones worked the boulders, eagerly digging into morsels exposed by the falling tide.

Harlequin Ducks are a stunning addition to any coastal scene, and there were several of these dapper divers bobbing in the surf. Scoters, eiders, and Long-tailed Ducks were also visible nearby, and I observed good numbers of Red-throated Loons with a few individuals showing off at close range. I’d seen a Snowy Owl on my way down to the jetty, presumably the same one I spied from afar the day before, but taking a closer look on my walk back to the parking lot revealed that there were two different birds on site. All in all, it was a perfect December day at the beach.

I paused briefly at Valley Stream State Park and Hendrickson Park before returning home, saying hello to one of the continuing Cackling Geese and scrounging around in a last ditch attempt to locate something new. With a busy week ahead and sundown fast approaching, I decided to declare my rarity round-up a success and bring the weekend’s birding session to a close. I enjoyed the opportunity to do some self-directed exploration rather than chasing someone else’s finds or counting an assigned territory. Perhaps some of the lingering goodies will stick around for the various CBCs…we don’t have much longer to wait!

Year List Update, December 4 – 403 Species

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Give Thanks for Birding

This is a time of year when we are encouraged to focus on the positives in our lives and show appreciation for the good stuff. It’s definitely not easy, but I do think it’s worth it! Sometimes you just need to take a moment to slow down, look around, and make the most of the current situation. My number one hobby is a constant reminder of this necessity, and I often wonder what I’d do without this beneficial influence. I’ve taken more than my fair share of lumps recently, but my connection to the natural world has helped me keep things in perspective through it all. In this season of thanks giving, I am thankful for birding.

Don’t get me wrong, being a birder comes with its own unique set of headaches and, occasionally, heartbreaks. Missing out on experiencing a new lifer despite your best efforts can be infuriating, and news of the recent Corn Crake’s demise honestly messed me up more than I’m comfortable admitting. Investing so much time and work into exploring nature can enhance the sting of negative moments, but it also makes for a deeply personal experience with incredibly rewarding highlights.

After celebrating the holiday proper with my family, I set out to try my luck at another annual tradition on Friday morning. Thanksgiving vacation usually coincides with the arrival of Snowy Owls in southern New York, and this year is shaping up as a potential whopper of an invasion. Miriam and I headed down to the coast to search for Arctic visitors, and it wasn’t long before we located an owl resting atop a dune. I’m always grateful for an opportunity to enjoy the company of my favorite animal, and Miriam was happy with her greatly improved looks compared to her previous encounter.

These endlessly popular birds typically draw a lot of attention, and I was disappointed to learn that this individual had already been pressured into flight several times that day. Snowy mania hits hard, and some folks are so obsessed with getting the best views and pictures that they don’t consider the personal space of the animals. Debates over how to mitigate the undue stress on these conspicuous, charismatic predators rage with fiery intensity whenever they visit our shores. The NY Birders group recently banned Snowy Owl images after a particularly fierce series of arguments between birders, photographers, and all nature enthusiasts in between. These quarrels will never lessen my love for Bubo scandiacus. It’s easy to see why people get so excited about these magical birds, but it should be equally easy to understand how important it is to give them the respect they deserve.

On Saturday, I took a leftovers delivery to my grandfather’s house as an excuse to drop by the scene of a local rarity discovery. A Western Tanager had been hanging around by the Alley Pond Environmental Center, a frequent haunt of mine back in my kindergarten days. I eventually got a brief glimpse of the bird when it flew across the path away from the stakeout spot where I stood with several other hopeful watchers. Even this subpar sighting brought me joy, although this was not my first-ever Western Tanager or even my first one this year. It was, however, my first encounter with the species in my home state. That a seconds-long look at a bird that I’ve seen in several different circumstances can still provide a spark of excitement as a new experience is something worth celebrating. It’s very difficult to stay bored for long when you’re an active birder. I did try for another look on Sunday, though, after some casual Queens county tallying with Brendan. The tanager remained determined to stay hidden, offering only a series of calls from the brush to confirm its continuing presence. Still counts!

The best surprise of the week came in a very nondescript package: a tiny, fluffy, grayish bird that was sighted in Central Park. Expert sleuths determined its identity as a Hammond’s Flycatcher surprisingly quickly considering the variety of notoriously similar-looking options in the genus Empidonax. Perhaps the prompt resolution of the mystery shouldn’t be a surprise, since New Yorkers have some experience sorting out vagrant flycatchers. This is only the third record of occurrence for Hammond’s in New York, and my one and only meeting with the species was on a Rocky Mountain ranger walk so long ago that I had nearly forgotten seeing it. I happily took an opportunity to scoot into the city to search for the wayward western wanderer, and I was able to relocate it as it fluttered through the Ramble in search of food. Even though it’s easy to write Empids off with “seen one, seen ’em all” dismissal, they are rather cute. Any new state bird is a welcome one in my book, especially when it produces a solidly improved encounter with a barely-remembered lifer.

Birding isn’t just about chasing mega rarities. Seasonal irregularities, infrequent regional guests, and even dirt-common local residents can deliver the observant individual from the humdrum routine of everyday life. I got a little bit of each before wrapping up my explorations for the week. The Hammond’s Flycatcher was accompanied by a bright male Wilson’s Warbler, one of several late migrants lingering in the Island and City area. When I returned to Nassau, I found that the pair of Cackling Geese remains at Hendrickson Park, with both birds showing off and posing nicely for photos. I also enjoyed an extended session with some nearby Ring-billed Gulls. Even our most pedestrian neighbors have their charms, and there’s always something worth observing if you simply think to look.

At the close of November, with just one month to go before 2018 comes calling, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ups and downs of the past year a lot more frequently. It has certainly been a hell of a ride, and I get the sense that the excitement isn’t over yet. Let’s see what December has to offer before the final curtain call!

Year List Update, December 1 – 403 Species (+ Hammond’s Flycatcher)

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Late fall always seems to bring the excitement. As southbound migration begins to slow down, the potential for weird surprises comes to a peak around the time that expected wintering birds start to arrive. November is a great time of year to get out and explore personal patches, and it helps to take note of long-term weather patterns and local conditions to maximize the efficiency of search time. This month often brings some of my favorite birding moments of any given year due to the consistent unpredictability. I often find myself down by the seashore, looking for unusual vagrants among the residents and more typical travelers. Flocks of gulls and swarms of passage passerines are great example opportunities to turn up something interesting, and they often provide plenty of spectacle themselves.

Geese are some of the most conspicuous arrivals in November. They are loud, obvious, and abundant, and lost geese have a well-documented tendency to fall in with crowds of common species. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning numbers of waterfowl at Hendrickson Park, watching closely for last winter’s most famous visitor. Off-track birds sometimes return to the same locations for years on end, and Dad is especially hopeful that his friend will return to us soon. So far, all of the geese at the lake have black feet, but migrants have been slightly delayed in their journey to our latitude. Anything is possible. I did, however, spot a Cackling Goose among the countless Canadas on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t the most obvious individual, but its short bill, frosty plumage, and squarish head stood out from the crowd.

I returned to Hendrickson on Saturday, and I located a second Cackling Goose after refinding the bird from the previous evening. This individual was much more conspicuous, with a stubby little bill affixed to its blocky head. This tiny, adorable gooselet looks remarkably similar to the bird that spent the season here from 2016 to 2017. Photos on eBird reveal that there have been several different Cackling Geese observed at this site over the past year or so, but the long-staying individual was distinctly diminutive and cartoonishly cute. Comparing my previous photos to the most recent series of the “new” goose, I think there’s a real possibility that this is a returning bird.

The gaggle of geese lounging on the lakeshore contained a mix of beefy locals and smaller migrants. The degree of variation in this species is impressive, even with the Cackling clan removed and recognized as biologically separate. I noticed a compact Canada with a thin, dusky chinstrap that resulted in an atypical dark-faced look. This bird, too, looked rather familiar, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a migrant that kept the company of last winter’s Cackler. Only time will tell if these are the only rarities to recur at this location.

There were plenty of gulls, cormorants, and ducks roosting alongside the geese. An American Coot was another indicator of the turning seasons, and I was delighted to see a handsome pair of Wood Ducks paddling out towards the center of the water feature. The late morning light illuminated the bright blue-green eyes of the cormorants perfectly. It is always a treat to observe this hidden feature in the field: it lends a lot of charm to an already quirky and entertaining bird.

When I finished up in Valley Stream, I headed east towards Montauk. My parents invited me to visit them at their weekend campsite in Hither Hills, and the East End birding scene heats up as the weather cools down. After meeting with my family and friends at the Montauk Brewing Company, I set about combing the area for goodies. I put in some time scanning Lake Montauk from multiple vantage points, but I found no sign of the female Brown Booby that lingered in the region from September into November. I can only hope that she got out of town ahead of the cold snap that came through at the end of the week. That same front seems to have ferried in a number of northern visitors, and I was pleased to find Purple Sandpiper, American Pipit, and a variety of seabirds during my scouting. One of the Common Loons I observed was still transitioning out of its dapper summer garb, creating an odd patchwork plumage.

I set up my scope at the Point’s restaurant patio as the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was not disappointed with my impromptu survey. Large feeding flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, several hundred strong, were a welcome sight after too many years with reduced numbers of these birds around the Island. There were good numbers of Laughers and other gulls mixed in with the throngs. I even picked out a pair of Great Shearwaters tailing the fishing boats close to shore. I drove back to the campground at dusk, enjoying dinner, drinks, and games before turning in for the night.

I woke up at 4 AM on Sunday, slipping out of the camper as silently as I could to do some owling. I searched at several spots in Hither Hills and Hither Woods State Parks, connecting with multiple Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl along the way. A tiny shadow that silently flew in to investigate my whistled Saw-whet impression caught me off guard. Interestingly, it revealed itself as a curious Screech-Owl when I got a glimpse of its ear tufts and it began vocalizing. One wonders what goes on in the world of these nocturnal predators when they cross paths with one another in the dark. As sunrise drew near, I made tracks to Camp Hero State Park and prepared for a dawn seawatch atop the bluffs. The lights came on slowly, but the colors and patterns revealed by the early morning glow were well worth the wait.

I’d been communicating with Anthony about coordinating our search efforts in the Hamptons, and he met me at Camp Hero just as the sun was peeking above the horizon. Mere minutes after he turned his optics towards the sea, he called out the name of a bird I was not expecting to hear: Pacific Loon! Anthony got me on the bird as it came perpendicular with out position and continued flying east towards the Point. I immediately saw that it was smaller than a Common Loon, with a less blocky profile and much faster wingbeats. It also had larger trailing feet and a more rounded head than a similarly-sized Red-throated Loon. The contrast between the dark upperparts and the clean white underparts was stark, and there was no evidence of pale speckling or paneling on the back. The bill was straight and intermediate between the two expected species, and the sharp line between dark and light on the neck lacked the white indentations of a Common or the dusky smudging of a young Red-throat. When the bird disappeared from sight, we exchanged high-fives in celebration of our good fortune. This was not only a state bird, but also my 400th year bird of 2017! Not bad for not being certain about setting a goal back in January!

The remainder of our vigil continued to impress. I refound one of the shearwaters from the day before, and Anthony spied a pair of early Razorbills. A Gray Seal was seen bobbing in the surf, and a spout just beyond the breakers drew immediately grabbed our attention. A Minke Whale’s dorsal fin broke the surface, but when we lowered our binoculars we saw a long, flat object rising rising from the waves in the same location. Was that a pectoral fin? The next blow was also followed by a Minke, but the third and fourth revealed a Humpback Whale that was seemingly moving in close association with its smaller cousin. We eventually left the cliffs to sweep the surrounding area for additional birds. Theodore Roosevelt County Park and South Lake Drive were quiet, but we were surprised by a Parasitic Jaeger and a flock of Snow Buntings on the western side of the Lake Montauk Inlet. The final treat of the day was a large pod of dolphins foraging north of Culloden Point. Through Anthony’s stronger scope, we were stunned to see the tan and gray hourglass markings that identified them as Short-beaked Common Dolphins, a species neither of us had ever seen from land before. It seems that the November shock factor isn’t limited to birds! You just never know what you’ll find!

I made a few more stops on my way back to Nassau, pausing at Seatuck Creek in Eastport to add a drake Eurasian Wigeon to my year total and briefly passing through Jones Beach just to see if there was any noteworthy activity. I was ready to crash by the time I made it home, satisfied but exhausted from a full weekend. I’ll be back out at Montauk soon enough…I only hope for similar successes next time!

Year List Update, November 12 – 402 Species (+ American Pipit, Pacific Loon, Parasitic Jaeger, Eurasian Wigeon)

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